Whether you are about to have your first mammogram or just scheduling your annual one, the idea of this breast cancer screening often leads to a sense of dread for women.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the perfect time to banish those fears and schedule your mammogram.
Julie Margenthaler, MD, Washington University and Siteman Cancer Center breast surgeon at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital, understands there are reasons why women worry about a mammogram, but she says it’s important to put those concerns aside for your own health or that of a loved one.
“Breast cancer is a scary diagnosis, but incredible strides have been made in the treatment of breast cancer, such that we cure most women,” she says. “Mammograms are the No. 1 way that you can be proactive in your breast health.
“I think women have to remember that the tradeoff for that very short amount of discomfort during a digital mammogram is the ability to pick up a breast cancer at its earliest stage so that we can treat it effectively,” she says. “Twelve percent of all U.S. women will develop a breast cancer in their lifetime — mammograms are the reason that we have over 2 million survivors today. They truly save lives.”
Dr. Margenthaler addresses common reasons why women shouldn’t dread a mammogram:
To obtain the best views so that a radiologist can have the best chance of identifying breast cancer early, it requires that the breast be compressed, which some women find uncomfortable. For women who already have breast pain or discomfort before the mammogram, it can be more intense discomfort. However, mammograms are not painful, and it is a very quick few seconds of discomfort.
Our mammogram technicians are all women who are very sensitive to the fact that this is a very personal screening. They will do everything they can to make you comfortable and to keep you covered as much as possible.
By the time a lump is detected by your physician, the breast cancer is often more advanced. A clinical breast examination is very important as well, but mammograms are significantly better at detecting breast cancer at much earlier stages, when it is more likely to be cured.
Having a screening mammogram is the most proactive way to identify breast cancer at a stage when it can be cured. By the time a tumor can be felt, it is often much more advanced, Dr. Margenthaler explains.
If you are a woman who has no family history of breast cancer, you should begin mammograms at age 40 and yearly thereafter. However, if you are a woman who has family members who have had breast cancer, mammograms may be indicated at an earlier age than 40. Speak to your physician to determine if your risk is elevated over the normal population and at which age you should begin mammograms.
Other imaging such as MRI may be recommended in addition to mammograms. It is important to get a risk assessment to make those decisions.
Most women are surprised to learn that 70 percent of all breast cancers are sporadic — meaning that the person has no family history of breast cancer, Dr. Margenthaler says. Therefore, it is important for all women without a family history of breast cancer to obtain a mammogram at age 40 and yearly thereafter.
It is true that mammograms aren’t perfect. They will miss about 5 percent to 10 percent of cancers. Some women have very dense breast tissue, which can hide small cancers.
However, mammograms are much better at detecting a breast cancer as early as possible than any other imaging test. Having said that, we now have laws in Missouri that require radiologists to notify patients if their breast is dense. In that situation, there may be other tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ultrasound to supplement the mammogram. Women should discuss this with their physicians to determine the best way to be followed.
One recommendation is for friends and family to go together to have their mammograms. Dr. Margenthaler and her mother and aunt have been doing this since she turned 40. “We get our mammograms, have lunch, and spend the day together,” she says. “I think it can take away some of the anxiety surrounding the mammogram. As women, we need to encourage our friends and family to undergo this important screening test.”
Mammograms at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital are in the Imaging Center. To make an appointment, call 314-996-8080 or toll free 844-542-9378.